Thursday, 19 November 2009

‘By the Mountain Bound’ – Elizabeth Bear (Tor)

This week seems to be the week for going back to books that I read a year ago by way of reading their follow ups... Last year, I came across Elizabeth Bear’s ‘All the Windwracked Stars’ after an abortive attempt at checking out L.E. Modesitt Jr for the first time (Note. I’m going for the ‘read Elizabeth Bear first, then L.E. Modesitt Jr’ approach this year and I think I’m going to get better results this time round). I won’t go into too much detail over ‘All the Windwracked Stars’ other than to say that my review can be found Here. Suffice it to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to...

So here I am, one year on, about to tell you all what I thought of the prequel ‘By the Mountain Bound’; what happened? Well, despite not really getting into what I read last year the concept was appealing enough for me to decide to give Elizabeth Bear’s work another go. There was also the fact that I had enjoyed her short story ‘Boojum’ (co-written with Sarah Monette) that appeared in the ‘Fast Ships, Black Ships’ anthology. If that wasn’t enough, I’ve made a very early New Year’s Resolution to give more authors a second chance. You can’t judge someone on the strength of one book, can you? (Maybe you can but that’s the subject of another post I think...)
Anyway... I figured I’d give ‘By the Mountain Bound’ a go and I’m glad that I did. While it suffers from some of the same issues that plagued ‘All the Windwracked Stars’, the story has a little more room to breathe this time round and is all the better for it.

‘By the Mountain Bound’ takes a two thousand year leap back into the past of the mythical world of Valdyrgard; a time when the Valkyrie Muire is not the last of her kind. The Children of the Light live an idyllic existence of feasting, fighting and protecting the nearby human settlements from danger with only the slightest hint of the secrets within their ranks that could prove divisive. All this is about to change however. A woman is found by the shore who claims to be the embodiment of a prophecy made flesh. Are her claims the truth though? Or is the warrior Strifbjorn merely loath to give up his power as warleader? The only result can be war that will tear a world apart...

I’ll confess to being a little bit bemused about the practice of writing a book and then going on to write it’s prequel. If people know what the ultimate outcome will be then what’s the point of reading the prequel? This made me slightly wary when approaching ‘By the Mountain Bound’; seeing as I already knew how it had to end I was on the lookout for plenty to make up for this... And I got it.
While the outcome is never in doubt, Bear uses this to place greater emphasis on the sense of tragedy that lies heavily over the plot. People fight to avoid what the reader knows will be their ultimate destiny and the resulting futility of their actions makes for a depressing yet compelling read.

That’s not to say that I found the book easy to get into however. As with ‘All the Windwracked Stars’, Bear likes to take her time before things really get going. The problem here is that the book is only three hundred and eighteen pages long so there isn’t all that much room to take things easy like this. Things really need to get going a lot earlier than they eventually do...

When things do kick off though, Bear proves adept at drawing the reader along with a mixture of action (that is understated yet surprisingly powerful) and a no holds barred look into the minds of the three main characters. Again, this can sometimes slip into ‘overkill’ (which slows things down when it really shouldn’t) but for the most part what we get is an incredibly raw and personal account of what Strifbjorn, Mingan and Muire are feeling at any one time. The relationship between Strifbjorn and Mingan is particularly intense in this regard and the way that events played out really had me feeling for both of them. I’d say that you could read ‘By the Mountain Bound’ without having read ‘All the Windwracked Stars’ first but if you have read the other book then you will certainly see Muire and Mingan in a new light by the end.

When the end comes, it’s powerful enough but over a little too quickly perhaps. Maybe that’s to be expected given that the reader will probably know how it ends already and I’d also say that the ending is more concerned with getting Muire where she needs to be for the next book (or the last book, depending on how you look at it) to begin. Scenes of destruction set against white snow always stand out though and this is one hell of a way for the book to end. We know what’s coming so we find ourselves with time to concentrate on what’s in front of us...

‘By the Mountain Bound’ suffers from some of the same problems as its predecessor but I found it to be a far superior book in its execution. As a result I’m going to be around for the next book in the series and I’m really looking forward to it.

Eight and a Half out of Ten


Mardel said...

Have you read any other books by Elizabeth Bear? I read one called Hammered which was pretty good. It's more science fiction, futuristic with a devastated Earth featured. I liked it, but have been unable to find the sequel in the store. She also has a fantasy series featuring fae and people from New York. She's a pretty prolific writer, and yet it's hard to find her books in the bookstores around my area (U.S.) Now that I've read your review of By the Mountain Bound, I'm interested in reading it.

Anonymous said...

[i]If people know what the ultimate outcome will be then what’s the point of reading the prequel?[/i]

Because, for whatever reason, a tragic ending in a speculative fiction book is only allowable in a prequel nowadays.

So, if authors want to do something along these lines, they are basically limited to jump-starting a series with the usual "happy ending" volume and then following up with the prequel - which maybe was the story that they wanted to write in the first place.

Personally, when I came across prequels first, I often found them much more satisfying than the main series and for that very reason. That they seemingly took risks with the formula.